BRÛLÉ, ÉTIENNE, interpreter of the Huron language, probably the first white man to make his way into the Huron country and Pennsylvania, and to see lakes Huron, Ontario, Superior, and Erie; b. c. 1592 probably at Champigny-sur-Marne (near Paris); murdered by the Hurons c. June 1633.
Étienne Brûlé has unfortunately left no personal description of his life among the Indians, or of his discoveries. The thread of his existence must be sought in the works of Champlain, Sagard, and Brébeuf, and even there it can be picked up only in haphazard fashion. In them the explorer’s image, eluding any systematic pursuit, as in a forest studded with clearings, appears and disappears in turn, enigmatic and fascinating.
We know almost nothing of his origins. The year of his arrival in Canada was for long the subject of conjecture, because Champlain identifies Étienne Brûlé clearly only in 1618. At that date Champlain referred to him by his name, specifying that Brûlé had been living for eight years among the Indians. In 1610, a “youth who had already spent two winters at Quebec” asked Champlain’s permission to go and live with the Indians in order to learn their language. This youth was the first European, and the only one that year, to attempt such a venture. Cross-checking leads us to suppose that the “youth” of whom Champlain speaks was indeed Étienne Brûlé, and that he had been at Quebec since 1608.
Had Brûlé taken part in Champlain’s first two clashes with the Iroquois? There is no indication of it. It is possible, however, that he was involved at least in the encounter that took place in the summer of 1610, since it was on the day immediately following this battle that he voiced to Champlain his desire to go and live among the Indians. Champlain, who had already conceived the plan of training interpreters, accepted readily, and entrusted Brûlé to the Algonkin chief Iroquet, receiving in exchange a young Huron called Savignon, who was to accompany him to France.
No documentary trace remains of this first experience of a Frenchman living among the Canadian Indians, or of the journey that Brûlé may have made with the Algonkins, and more specifically with the tribe of the Iroquets. The forest swallowed up the young adventurer, and we lose sight of him. He must have wintered with Iroquet, but where? The Algonkin chief may just as well have spent that winter in the Huron country as in his village, somewhere in the valley of the Ottawa (Outaouais) River. All that Champlain tells us about the young man’s exploit is that he was the first white man to shoot the Sault-Saint-Louis (the Lachine rapids, near Montreal) in a canoe. When later on Champlain, in his turn, ventured down these rapids with the Indians’ help, he admitted that he had never yet done it unaided, “nor had any other Christian, except my young man of whom I have already spoken [Étienne Brûlé].”
Brûlé and the Indians returned as arranged one year after their departure, about 13 June 1611. It was a memorable event, which Champlain describes with a certain emotion: “I also saw my French boy who came dressed like an Indian. He was well pleased with the treatment received from the Indians, according to the customs of their country, and explained to me all that he had seen during the winter, and what he had learned from the Indians. . . . My lad . . . had learned their language very well.” A new figure had come into being: the interpreter (truchement), destined to play an important role in the early days of the colony. Living among the Indians, in their fashion, he was accepted by them as one of their own people. He constituted a liaison officer between the colonizers and the natives, and was an indispensable cog in the mechanism of the fur trade.
During the four years following his return, Brûlé again vanished. From certain facts it can be presumed that he stayed in the Huron country – where subsequently he was to take up residence – for at least a part of this period. It is therefore probable that he was the first European to see that region and to make the long trip there via the Ottawa and Mattawa rivers, Lake Nipissing, the French River, and Georgian Bay. His discovery of the Huron country – assuming it took place – was the first of the numerous peregrinations of the interpreter between the years 1615 and 1626.
In 1615, Brûlé started out on an expedition that was to make him famous. Champlain and the Hurons, undertaking their third campaign against the Iroquois, were on their way that year towards the village of the Onondagas (situated not far from the present city of Syracuse, N.Y.), when they decided to send a delegation to the Susquehannahs, allies of the Hurons, to request their support for the projected battle. The Susquehannahs lived to the south of the Five Nations of the Iroquois (in the present county of Tioga, N.Y., probably between Elmira and Binghamton). To get there quickly, the delegation had to cross enemy territory; 12 of the best Huron braves were selected. Brûlé asked Champlain for permission to follow them, “to which I readily agreed,” wrote Champlain, “since he was drawn thereto of his own inclination, and by this means would see their country and could observe the tribes that inhabit it.” The delegation left Champlain at Lake Simcoe, the Huron army pushing on northwards, Brûlé and the 12 braves heading towards the south. As always when Brûlé was involved, no precise report has been made of the route taken on this journey. However, historians are generally agreed that the party must have followed the Humber River to its mouth (where the city of Toronto is now situated), gone around the western end of Lake Ontario, then landed somewhere on the south shore, perhaps between the Niagara and Genesee rivers, pushing on after that towards Carantouan, the Susquehannah capital. The mission of the Hurons and Brûlé did not prove successful. Although they succeeded in raising an army of Susquehannahs, it reached the meeting-place agreed upon with Champlain two days late, at a time when the Huron army, already defeated by the Iroquois, had abandoned the spot. After this reverse, Brûlé returned with the Susquehannahs to Carantouan to continue his exploration.
In the account that Brûlé later gave Champlain of his adventures in the country of the Susquehannahs, he stated that he had spent the autumn and winter investigating the neighbouring nations and regions, and “making his way along a river which discharges on the coast of Florida,” and that he had continued “his route along the said river to the sea, past islands and the coasts near them.” As he probably did not possess the necessary knowledge to draw a map or to determine co-ordinates, Brûlé gave only a vague description of the region visited. In view of the geographical position of Carantouan, it seems likely that the river was the Susquehanna, which Brûlé may have gone down by starting at one of its branches rising in the county of Otsego, N.Y., that he reached Chesapeake Bay, which is indeed filled with islands, and that he went as far as the ocean. The bay itself had already been discovered in 1608 by Capt. John Smith. The latter had not been able, however, to go up the river, because of the obstacles. Étienne Brûlé, the first European to see Lake Ontario, would then also be the first to tread the soil of what is now Pennsylvania. But, according to Brûlé’s account, the trip was not yet finished. On the way back he apparently lost his way, and fell into the hands of the Senecas. The Iroquois seemingly had time to subject him to the opening stages of the physical torment reserved for prisoners, thus adding to his exploits the sorry privilege of being the first white man to have experienced their tortures. However, he managed to persuade the Indians to release him, through a ruse – by interpreting the sudden appearance of a storm as an intervention by heaven in his favour. Having set him free, the Indians accepted him as a member of the tribe and even included him in their feasts. Zeller questions the truth of the part of Brûlé’s account relating to the miracle. The Senecas, anxious to conclude peace and to trade with the white men, may have released Brûlé on his promise “to make them friends with the French and their enemies, and to make them swear friendship for one another.” Realizing that the conclusion of a Franco-Iroquois peace would compromise the interests of his friends the Hurons, Brûlé may have invented the rescue by heaven in order to explain to Champlain the hospitality of the enemy.
The expedition that Brûlé next undertook, in fulfilment of an earlier promise to Champlain, led him to discover Lake Superior. Butterfield, who has studied all his movements, places this voyage in 1621–23. Despite the lack of written sources, he reconstructs the route with a fair degree of probability. Accompanied by a certain Grenolle, Brûlé seems to have set out from Toanché, a Huron village of the Bear tribe where he had established his residence. The two adventurers may have gone northwards in a canoe, making their way along the shore of Georgian Bay as far as the copper mines worked by the Indians, on the north shore of what is known today as the North Channel. In fact Sagard recounts that “at about 80 or 100 leagues from the Hurons, there is a copper mine, from which the Interpreter Brûlé showed me an ingot when he returned from a voyage that he made to the neighbouring Nation with a certain Grenolle,” the “neighbouring nation” being, according to what can be deduced from the description given by Grenolle elsewhere, a tribe then inhabiting that region. The two companions may then have gone via the St. Marys River as far as Lake Superior. Butterfield supposes that Brûlé and Grenolle continued their journey by following the north shore of Lake Superior to the spot on the St. Louis River where the cities of Duluth and Superior now stand. Yet there is no proof that Brûlé did actually cross the lake, although Sagard seems to state it by implication: “The Interpreter Bruslé and a number of Indians have assured us that beyond the mer douce [Lake Huron] there is another very large lake, which empties into the former by a waterfall, nearly two leagues across, which has been called the Gaston falls [Sault Ste. Marie]; this lake, with the freshwater sea, represents about a 30-day trip by canoe according to the Indians’ statement, and according to the interpreter is 400 leagues long.” The fact that Brûlé had a different opinion from that of the Indians might indicate that he had made the trip and was giving a personal estimation of it. The obscure Brûlé would in that case have preceded Daniel Greysolon* Dulhut and Nicolas Perrot*.
To the regions traversed by Brûlé it is probably necessary to add the country of the Neutrals. According to Butterfield, he was there about 1625. This hypothesis, very probable though it is, rests on no documentary proof. We can only refer to a sentence in which Father Joseph de La Roche Daillon, in 1626, expressed the desire to go to the Neutral country, about which, he said, the interpreter Brûlé reported wondrous things. The Huron and Neutral nations moreover maintained frequent and friendly relations, a circumstance which makes Brûlé’s voyage still more plausible, considering the number of years that he had spent in the Huron country. If Brûlé went to the Neutral country, he must have seen Lake Erie. Thus he would be the discoverer of four of the Great Lakes.
Some authors attribute to Brûlé the additional merit of having shared in the writing of Brother Sagard’s dictionary of the Huron language. This is merely a supposition; it is certain only that in the beginning Brûlé helped Sagard to learn the language. It has also been maintained that Brûlé rendered the same service to Brébeuf, who lived three years (1626–29) in the same place as he, at Toanché. It is unlikely that he did so, for relations between Brûlé and Brébeuf were never good. Besides, Sagard complained that the interpreters banded together subsequently to refuse to teach the missionaries the native dialects.
With remarkable exploits to his credit, Brûlé was unfortunately guilty of reprehensible actions that have sullied his memory. In espousing the customs of the Indians, he had also adopted their morals. “This man was recognized as being very vicious in character, and much addicted to women,” wrote Champlain. In the eyes of Champlain and the missionaries, this degradation of a European to an inferior state of civilization stemmed from the desire to live in debauchery, and constituted a sin that they found difficult to pardon. In Brûlé’s defence it should be remembered that he was very young when he set out in 1610 to live among the Indians. Furthermore, he is said to have had only a very sketchy religious upbringing. One day, recounts Sagard, when Brûlé was in danger of death, the only prayer he was able to recite was the Benedicite. In these circumstances it is understandable that he should have been beguiled by the free, primitive customs of the Indians. But Champlain also harboured resentment against him for another reason: that he was working – like his associate Nicolas Marsolet, an interpreter of the Montagnais and Algonkian languages – for the benefit of the merchants rather than for that of colonization. Brûlé indeed received from the business men an annual salary of 100 pistoles to encourage the Indians to come and trade. None the less, all these faults would probably have been forgotten by posterity if in the year 1629, when Quebec was captured, Brûlé had not agreed, with three other companions, to abandon Champlain and enter the service of the Kirke brothers. Champlain accused him of treason, and Brûlé went back to the Huron country. This episode represents the blackest page in his story. When Champlain returned to New France in 1633, Brûlé was dead.
The circumstances surrounding his death are shrouded in mystery. For some reason unknown, the Hurons, among whom he had lived as a brother for 20 years, killed him and ate him. The crime weighed upon the whole Huron nation. When Brébeuf returned to Toanché, he found the place deserted. The Bear tribe had abandoned the village and split up. The Bears did not manage to “purge themselves” of this murder, and admitted that “no satisfaction had been obtained” from the interpreter’s death. Pursued by epidemics, haunted by the memory of Brûlé “whose wounds are still bleeding,” they attributed the cause of their misfortunes to the avenging spirit of the dead man’s sister or brother, which, they said, breathed a curse on them. For a long time, suspicion centred on the tribe’s chief, Aenon, but the latter denied that he was guilty. For want of proof, the enigma of Brûlé’s murder remains unsolved.
Thus, Étienne Brûlé ended by paying very dearly for his mistakes. Endowed with a great spirit of independence, with initiative and indisputable courage, he had, despite all his failings, a remarkable and colourful personality. He is a striking example of the fascination that the free life of the Indians held for young Frenchmen in the first century of the colony’s history.
Champlain, Œuvres (Laverdière), 368–70, 397–404, 408, 507, 523, 590, 621–29, 1043, 1045, 1064–65, 1228–29, 1249–51. JR (Thwaites). Sagard, Histoire du Canada (Tross), 306, 328, 338, 430–32, 456–57, 589, 716–17, 752–53; Long journey (Wrong and Langton). Morris Bishop, Champlain: the life of fortitude (New York, 1948). C. W. Butterfield, History of Brulé’s discoveries and explorations, 1610–1626 (Cleveland, 1898). Benjamin Sulte, “Étienne Brûlé,” RSCT, 3d ser., I (1907), sect.i, 97–126. J. Tremblay, “La sépulture d’Étienne Brûlé,” RSCT, 3d ser., IX (1915), sect.i, 145–64. A. G. Zeller, The Champlain-Iroquois battle of 1615 (Oneida, N.Y., [1962?]), 19, 22.
© 1966–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
Olga Jurgens, “BRÛLÉ, ÉTIENNE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 26, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/brule_etienne_1E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Olga Jurgens|
|Title of Article:||BRÛLÉ, ÉTIENNE|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1966|
|Year of revision:||2015|
|Access Date:||March 26, 2023|